Colson Whitehead, author of John Henry Days and Apex Hides the Hurt, wrote this for New York Times back in April 06, and read from it at Harbourfront on Saturday.
Proposal for an Alternative Use of the Empire State Building, on the Occasion of Its 75th Anniversary
Personally, I think it's great that they store all the fiction writers in there. Sure, the vistas feed the imagination on good days and suicidal ideation on bad days, but what appeals most is the community. We work so much in isolation after all.
Everybody is so plain-spoken and honest on the realist floor, it's very refreshing, although when you finish a conversation you're not sure if they were really saying anything. Still, that's much more pleasant than chatting with the allegorists, who start nattering on about sentient cows and the inevitable recursiveness of human experience when you ask a simple question like "Do you know what time it is?" or "Do these pants make my ass look big?"
People complain about getting lost on the experimental floor, but I think it's pretty easy to navigate - the walls have signs that say "This is a wall," the floor has a sign that says "This is a floor," and in case you miss the signs the first time, they are repeated over and over again.
Critic-novelists stay close to ground level, so they can argue with themselves over whether to take the stairs or the elevator -- whatever they choose each day, they insist that everyone should do it that way. Hang out with the domestic fiction guys for longer than a quick drink and you'll discover they're quite paranoid, constantly accusing each other of stealing their "unique" material, but they throw great cocktail parties if you go in for that sad undercurrent thing. I know I do. John Grisham and Stephen King types have their own floors, although it's a mystery what goes on there - when their names come up, people say "If not for them..." and then trail off into an eerie silence, the kind of disturbing quiet you hear when you pass the sophomore slump floors. (Keep typing, guys!).
Floors 35-86 are the midlist stomping grounds, full of plenty of likable folks, even if they always manage to steer the conversation around to how "it's all about the work." You might want to take the express elevators. It's a long ride up to the breakout book floor, but people say it's worth the wait.
Sometimes you have to shoo away a memoirist from your desk. They wander in from time to time.
A loud alarm goes off every couple of hours or so to warn you when someone starts a new literary journal. The mad stampede you hear immediately afterwards is people looking for stamps. Building maintenance is performed by those who indicate in their author bios that they have held "real life" jobs before "settling on this writing thing." ("...worked as a longshoreman, quarryman, bouncer, boxer's cut-man, haberdasher...") After an epidemic of "snark cough" told us that delicate lungs were being irritated by airborne particles, we recruited some former construction workers from the post-9/11 anti-ironists and neo-sincerists, and they quickly removed all the snark from the ceiling insulation, well under estimate. When the furnace broke down we burned a hybrid fuel made out of MFA students and novels of linked stories. This was an abundant energy source and kept us warm until spring.
All the poets are in Madison Square Garden -- where else would they all fit? -- but we keep a few around to work the lunch room. They say the fry cook takes a mean author photo. ("Now put your hand to your face and show us how painful the words are.") Attendance used to be required at lunch, until thedubious subgenre of "cafeteria novels" surfaced, was denounced in a series of reactionary essays in the New Republic (Who can forget "Tut-tut to the Hysterical Cafeteria Novel"?), and now people just eat whenever they feel like it.
Then they go back to work.